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From The Asian Reporter, V18, #19 (May 6, 2008), page 18.
"Music saved my life"
A Song for Cambodia
By Michelle Lord
Illustrations by Shino Arihara
Lee & Low, 2008
Hardcover, 32 pages, $16.95
By Josephine Bridges
In a country of sugar palms, whispering grasses, and bright sunshine, there lived a boy named Arn. His home was filled with the sweet sounds of music and laughter." So began the life of Cambodian musician and activist Arn Chorn-Pond, but the Khmer Rouge changed all that, separating Arn from his parents, grandparents, and 11 brothers and sisters. "I come from a family of performers," he says in the afterword to A Song for Cambodia. "I am the only one left."
It is a terrible shame young people must learn their world is filled with such suffering as the Khmer Rouge inflicted on the population of Cambodia ó many of them children ó three decades ago, but Michelle Lordís excellent book is a tale of triumph as well as tragedy. Arn Chorn-Pond could have achieved heroic status simply by surviving those horrifying times. In fact, he has done much more.
Sound is always in the background of A Song for Cambodia. The explosions that preceded the arrival of soldiers in 1975 "crackled through the air like a thousand New Yearís noisemakers." Forbidden to speak as they worked from sunrise to midnight in the rice paddies, Arn and the other children heard only "the shouts of soldiers threatening young workers and the rumbles of Arnís empty belly." Apparently even the soldiers yearned for music, and asked for volunteers to join a group that would play "revolutionary and marching songs." This was a far cry from the joyful music of his home, but Arn learned to play the khim, a wooden string instrument. He "knew he must play his best for his life depended on pleasing the soldiers."
"When he was about twelve years old, South Vietnam invaded Cambodia," and the soldiers sent Arn and other boys to the border to fight. Arn escaped, following "the chattering sounds of a monkey family" through the jungle, picking up "the food they dropped, knowing it would be safe to eat."
For three months the boy put as much distance as he could between himself and the sounds of explosions. When he collapsed with a fever, he had no idea how close he was to Thailand, where he awakened in a refugee camp. Although he was free from Khmer Rouge soldiers, Arn was still hungry and afraid and "longed for the comforting music of his khim."
Arn was too weak to get himself to safety when a flood swept through the camp. Fortunately for all of us, an American volunteer, Reverend Peter Pond, saved the boyís life and, after developing a relationship based on "hand signals and smiles," decided to adopt him. Though he was safe once again, Arnís "heart still ached with the loss of his family in Cambodia." How he dealt with that loss, immediately and in the years to come, is only one of the reasons to read A Song for Cambodia. Others include Shino Ariharaís understated illustrations that guide the reader through imagining the unimaginable, and the photograph of the smiling Arn Chorn-Pond in front of the house he is building in Cambodia.
Like its protagonist, A Song for Cambodia is a treasure.